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Solar Call Boxes Get Hung Up in Patent Dispute

February 02, 1989|TRACEY KAPLAN | Times Staff Writer

Installation of emergency call boxes on Ventura County freeways, scheduled for April, will be delayed because of a dispute over patent rights, a county official said.

Al Knuth, deputy director of the county Public Works Department, said that installation of the 390 solar-powered call boxes will be delayed at least until July because of legal squabbles between two communications companies that had bid on the project.

"It's a disappointment we sure didn't expect," he said in an interview Friday.

Knuth said the county has spent $3,000 to hire an attorney specializing in patent law to help settle the disagreement. The attorney, Bernard Kleinke of San Diego, is to report to county officials Feb. 22, he said.

In October, the county awarded Cubic Communications Corp. of San Diego a contract for nearly $817,000 to install the boxes at quarter- and half-mile intervals on six freeways. It rejected a competing bid of about $1 million from GTE Cellular Communications Corp. of Burbank.

GTE alleges that allowing Cubic to install the system would be an infringement of GTE's patent on the system, which doesn't expire until 2004, Knuth said.

E.A. Hardenburgh, GTE's general manager, said the company would consider letting Ventura County use the system for a fee. Hardenburgh would not say how much GTE would charge the county.

Keith Burnett, Cubic's chairman, said his firm would "defend any suit GTE wants to throw at us." He said that licensing the call-box network "is like licensing the wheel" because the technology is not that sophisticated.

A lawsuit, he said, "would not hold up, but it's sure got the politicians nervous, so that's why they've delayed the installation."

Ventura County has three call boxes. Two are on the Simi Valley Freeway just over the Los Angeles County line. The other is on the southbound side of the Ventura Freeway, halfway up a steep incline near Camarillo.

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